STRUGGLES OF IMMIGRATION: COMING TO AMERICA
Alexandra R. Eichinger-Wiese
Approaching The Art
Birds chirped amongst the grey skies adding some cheer to a dull grey morning. After winding my way through the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, I had finally reached the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens in Asheville, NC. Like the birds, the multi-colored trash sculptures scattered about the hillside make something beautiful out of a wasteland. Many important faces of the civil rights movement line the walkways and stare down at the observer like a pantheon of gods. They seem to speak “go out into the world and make injustice apparent”. The pathway leads up to an area with many installations incorporating the color red which has many cultural implications. Above the installation’s entrance hang the words “urban nightmares, silent screams” which sets an ominous tone for the piece to come.
Past the gates guarded by a chained Uncle Sam, the art piece “Coming to America” stands. Originally, it was only a red cut-out of Africa chained to a cinder block. This illustrates that even as a citizen of the United States, an immigrant’s origin is often chained to them forever. Prominently in the installation a Playboy logo is placed on chain link fencing next to a sign saying “DO NOT ENTER”; above the playboy insignia hangs the original red wood cutout of Africa chained to a cinder block; adjacent to the bunny is a broken TV cluttered with leaves encapsulating a sexy model, presumably a playboy centerfold. The installation “Coming to America” exhibits the multifaceted issue of immigration to America because it addresses the consumerism, sexualization, and weight of prejudice that all immigrants face.
The Burton Street Community
Contextually, the art piece speaks on both the issue of immigration and tangentially on the issues represented by the many art pieces within the garden. Although each piece shows one issue, each art piece sitting like trash flowers in a garden is connected to the others, creating a complex representation of social issues existing throughout Asheville, North Carolina, America, and the world. Thus the Burton Street Community Garden is more than just a community garden or an outdoor art gallery. It is a call to action. It is art from trash. It is hope. This garden serves to bring many issues addressed only on the grand scale to the local level. Many years ago, the neighborhood was considered by white Ashevillians to be a garbage dump, so they would literally bring in their trash and dump it in the yards of the residents. It was one of the black neighborhoods of Asheville. Now it is a perfect example of gentrification as modern, polished and posh houses are going up in this community, thus displacing the neighbors as property prices rise. This garden is both a place where a community grows fresh produce and a place showing art from trash, settled at the crux between the issues it speaks on.
The Art and Immigration
While striding amongst five foot images of Gandhi and MLK, one is invited into a conversation concerning the injustices suffered by immigrants and particularly the black community. Although the invitation is offered, a demand to action is also given. The trash sculptures made from items discarded as disgusting or useless communicate the multifaceted importance of the issues at question. One of those issues, immigration, exhibited in “Coming to America”, shows how the problems of immigration even impact the children of immigrants as they are constantly insulted by “the native population” because of their ancestry. Although individuals come to America seeking a better life, or freedom from oppression, they are faced with slurs and an uphill battle. Yet, regardless of the nightmares and pleasure awaiting in America, immigrants still make the often arduous journey in search of a better place, or because all other options are no longer viable. Consequently, “Coming to America” strives to show the often forgotten difficulties faced by immigrants. The art piece “Coming to America” speaks to how immigration to the United States and its various locales present a unique set of hurdles for individuals from different nations, often influenced by the perception of the nation's citizens.
The National Context
Race, ethnicity, origin, and immigration are intrinsically tied topics that spark great disagreement throughout the United States. Although many individuals believe America to be a nation formed on the foundations of immigration, recent political swings and changes in the mission statement of The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have indicated otherwise (Jordan, 2018). Formerly, the USCIS focused on inclusive strategies because the US was a nation of immigrants, whereas under the current administration the policy is “America first” according to the president (Jordan, 2018). This speaks to a change in perceptions of the public as a more conservative political ideology has swept the country, with the current President calling African nations “shithole countries” and banning Arab nations from entrance at all. Additionally, there has been an increased trend in African immigration to the United States, which adds complexity to an already murkey issue (Pew, Research Center, 2015, and Roberts, 2005). Some experiences are universal to all immigrants while certain groups, such as African Americans, suffer additional hurdles while living in America after braving the stringent immigration procedures. Although many other immigrants from varying nationalities suffer based on skintone and appearances, the struggle of African immigrants today and historically is particularly pertinent to the sculpture.
All immigrants share certain struggles as newcomers in America, from culture shock to discrimination. I am the great granddaughter of a European immigrant, who came to America for a brighter future to put in hard work to support his family back in the Germanic part of what was then Hungary (now Romania). Another one of my great grandparents came across the ocean from Scandinavia as an indentured seamstress. Thus, like many in America, my origins are from immigration. But unlike individuals of African origin and all people of color, my immigrant ancestry does not impact my daily life. Only my ancestors had to deal with the slurs and discrimination dealt toward all immigrant parties. Simply, appearances, accents, and traditions influence how someone is perceived in America. Overall, European immigrants suffered and sometimes still suffer great indignities because they are newcomers, but after many years their children are considered fully American due to the privileges of skin tone and appearance.
Privilege and Discrimination
Most individuals not of European descent, people of color, lack white privilege and thus have been subjected to indignities for many generations. Certain populations, such as African Americans, face affronts with more frequency than others because they bear an outward unchangeable identifier of their origins. For immigrants with similar features to those in the new country, the process is easier as indicators such as accents can be removed. Many people note that more and more Africans are coming to America, to the point that in this century more immigrants coming voluntarily from Africa are coming in quantities greater than were forcibly shipped over as slaves (Roberts, 2005). Over the last few decades the trend of African immigrants seems to almost exponentially grow, reflecting an exodus of Africans to America coming to seek better educational opportunities or fleeing humanitarian crises. Since race in America has been a hot topic for centuries, the African immigrants coming to America in the 21st century add a layer of complexity to the issues of both racism and immigration because their experiences in the US are different than those whose ancestors were slaves (Pew, Research Center 2015). Consequently, the issues faced by today's African immigrants are compounded by the civil rights issues pertaining to African Americans within the United States. Additionally, a new immigrant must face the strange consumerism, sexualization, and prejudices that are steeped in American society. One needs only to look at the current president, Donald J. Trump, who is a billionaire once featured on Playboy front cover, to see the impact of American consumerism. Overall, the new African immigrant to the United States is faced with many challenges from racism to culture shock and discrimination, which are primarily created by the opinions and customs of the current citizens.
Tolerance and Intolerance
Although Americans were found in Citrin and Sides’ research to be more tolerant of diversity than their European counterparts, perhaps owing to a history of being immigrants, Americans as a whole preferred lower levels of immigration while perceiving that the immigrant populations were significantly larger than in realty (Citrin,& Sides, 2008). These misconceptions are perhaps one of the underlying factors seen in current immigration policy and ideology that seeks to bar more immigrants from entering the country and taking jobs and resources they have not “earned” (Pew Research Center, 2017). Generally, American citizens prioritize their security of services, life, and jobs over allowing immigrants in, while agreeing that immigrants who arrived here as children should be protected and that building a wall is not a priority. Overall, increasingly insular sentiments are pervading America in regards to immigration policy even though the number of people satisfied versus dissatisfied with the level of immigration in America is fairly balanced (Gallup, 2018). Every community in America has its own particular difficulties and culture surrounding immigration, which make up the national perspective.
Within Asheville, many of the national issues are played out at a local level because it is a liberal town surrounded by the conservative south, making two of America’s prominent ideologies interact. Many people note that Asheville is a place full of transplants who are not natives to the Mountains. Consequently, the art installation held within the Peace Garden reflects the juxtaposition of the liberal and conservative ideology that brings forth a particular experience for the Ashevillian immigrant. Asheville is a place where different perspectives meet to create a unique environment, where discrimination is often unseen. While Asheville might appear as inclusive, policies linking court databases to ICE’s increase deportations of peaceable immigrants, the Eastern European communities are overlooked, and the town is still segregated by physical and economic barriers (Mi Historia, 2018). These policies that set up barriers also extract many costs not just from immigrants, but from citizens too. While some believe immigrants make America great, policies set to make immigration difficult result in fewer immigrants bringing their economic vitality to the table (Asgedom, 2016). Additionally, funds from citizens must be directed toward deportation and anti-immigrant measures. Yet history shows that many of the great economic successes in Asheville, like the American Enka Company or the Broadway Hosiery Company, were implemented by immigrants (Coming to the Mountains: Immigration & Western North Carolina). These manifestations of immigration intolerance show the problems faced in Asheville as it sits at the intersection of many ideologies and beliefs.
Asheville is a place where America collides with itself. Asheville is a place both northern and southern in nature. Asheville is a place where the the encompassing immigration problems of the US are all present, but on a smaller, sometimes unseen scale. Today, the primarily minority based communities of Asheville live in a food desert made from economic and social discrimination, while the affluent dine on croissants and sweet tea (Hall, 2017). The Burton Street Community itself is a microcosm of these issues, as gentrification impacts the current residents of a traditionally black neighborhood. Although immigrants from all origins face struggles and discrimination, the particular animosity shown toward African immigrants and other people of color in United States and consequently Asheville is particularly highlighted within the art sculpture "Coming to America”.
Back to the Sculpture
The art installation “Coming to America” exhibits the many struggles of an immigrant in America. Although discrimination is perhaps the easiest problem to see, immigrants face many more legal social and physical barriers in Asheville and the nation. Pain, pleasure, and proscription, shown in the sculpture as the chain, playboy paraphernalia, and the DO NOT ENTER sign respectively, all are components impacting immigrant populations with particular ferocity. The pleasure and consumerism culture easily allows immigrants struck by culture shock to delve into the bowels of American culture, while they are chained to their heritage by their new country. Additionally, after braving everything from midnight illegal border crossings to the hell of American customs, immigrants are still told they do not belong. The sign DO NOT ENTER is ingrained into the immigrant experience.
Today, immigration is a hot button issue constantly leveraged by politicians and debated over the dinner table. Yet, the installation “Coming to America” housed in the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens invites all to a peaceable discussion concerning the many impacts of immigration in the country and the struggles immigrants face. Opinions of the majority in a democratic society hold sway, and thus the stages of the public in regards to immigration directly impact the immigration experience on both a governmental and personal level. Determining the proper and good amount, if any, of immigration for the nation is a difficult task and perhaps should not be left to one party or person. By opening the discussion about the hurdles immigrants face and their possible benefits for the American economy, certain prejudices and misperceptions can be dispelled. After all, every American citizen is an immigrant or an ancestor of an immigrant if they are not completely Native American. To be an American in many ways is to be an immigrant even though current policy and cultural sentiment is quite against immigration to America.
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